Far and away, the most intriguing pregame question is: What will Kentucky fans do?
The Wildcats’ Dec. 29 appearance in the Music City Bowl will be UK’s fifth in the Nashville bowl game. The Cats are 2-2 on the field, but Kentucky fans are undefeated in those games at the turnstiles.
Since the Music City Bowl moved into the Tennessee Titans’ home venue, now called Nissan Stadium, in 1999, UK fans have been the major factor in two of the game’s five sellouts.
Both years, it appeared there were 40,000 to 45,000 Kentucky fans in the house.
UK’s other two appearances in the Music City Bowl also drew well. There were 59,221 when the Cats lost to Syracuse 20-13 in 1999 — an impressive Wildcats fan showing because Syracuse brought almost no one. In 2009, 57,280 watched Clemson beat Kentucky 21-13.
This year, however, the optics leading into UK’s Music City Bowl trip suggest another overwhelming turnout by the BBN cannot be taken for granted.
Kentucky enters the bowl off a dispiriting showing in its regular-season finale against archrival Louisville.
In falling 44-17 to the Cards, the Cats never forced a punt. During the game, a few UK players lost their composure and failed to comport themselves in a classy manner.
Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart acknowledged in a news conference last Sunday that UK had alienated some of its backers in the U of L game. Barnhart asked the fans to attend the bowl to try to help the football team get back on the right track.
“Our young people need to know they’ve got the support of the Big Blue Nation and that (the fans) will uplift this program a little bit,” Barnhart said, “just as our fans have looked for our players to uplift them at times.”
Coach Mark Stoops’ Cats carry a 7-5 record into their meeting with No. 20 Northwestern (9-3). It is the same record UK took into its Music City Bowl appearances in 2006, ’07 and ’09 and one victory better than Hal Mumme’s UK team (6-5) in 1999.
Nevertheless, at least a segment of the UK fan base regards this year’s 7-5 as more of an opportunity lost than a sign of program momentum.
That feeling is based on the belief Stoops and UK did not take full advantage of a season when traditional SEC East titans Florida (4-7, 3-5 SEC) and Tennessee (4-8, 0-8) were historically weak and UK’s rotating foe from the SEC West was scandal-plagued Mississippi (6-6, 3-5).
Testing the enthusiasm of UK fans is that the Music City Bowl will kick off (4:30 p.m. EST) only three-and-a-half hours after the annual Kentucky-Louisville men’s basketball Armageddon tips off in Rupp Arena.
How many people who have hoops tickets would also be likely to attend a Kentucky football bowl game? Whatever that number is, those fans will have to choose.
“I don’t look at that as a problem,” Barnhart said. “I look at it as a great opportunity. ... I don’t know too many schools that have the incredible opportunity to have two showcase opportunities in one day for your two marquee programs.”
Historically, games in Nashville draw heavily from UK fans in the western and southern parts of the commonwealth.
With a chance to stay at home and watch both Kentucky basketball and football on TV in the same day, will those fans be as willing to attend the Music City Bowl in person as in the past?
As of Saturday, Kentucky was still processing Music City Bowl ticket orders from its initial allotment of 8,000 tickets, according to Guy Ramsey, the Director of Strategic Communications for UK Athletics. The Nashville bowl had 25,000 to 26,000 ticket pre-orders prior to the teams being announced, Ramsey said.
Overall, Kentucky fans will have to carry the attendance in Nashville. A private school, Northwestern (largest home crowd this year: 41,061) does not have a large football fan following.
“I hope there will be 25,(000), 30,000 (UK) fans down in Nashville cheering our football program on,” Barnhart said.
So, what will Kentucky fans do?
Kentucky in the Music City Bowl
The University of Kentucky’s 2017 matchup with Northwestern in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl will be UK’s fifth appearance in the Nashville bowl game. Below is UK’s history in the game:
1999 Syracuse 20, Kentucky 13 (Attendance: 59,221)
2006 Kentucky 28, Clemson 20 (Attendance: 68,024)
2007 Kentucky 35, Florida St. 28 (Attendance: 68,661)
2009 Clemson 21, Kentucky 13 (Attendance: 57,280)